BAN #283: Radio Astronomy highlights, Anthropogenic mass > biomass

28 December 2020   Issue #283

[Spiral Galaxy M81 image credit: Adam Block/Mount Lemmon SkyCenter/University of Arizona]

Subscribers have heart that outweighs anthropogenic mass

Astro Tidbit

A brief synopsis of some interesting astronomy/science news

I am very honored, and more than a little bit pleased, to have been asked to write and narrate a series of short videos for the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (@TheNRAO) highlighting the coolest observations made in 2020. I worked on this with them for 2019, and it was a lot of fun, and I’m grateful they asked me to do it again for this year.

We’ll be releasing one per day up to New Year’s Day for six in total. The first one, released on Sunday 27 Dec., is about measuring the wind speed on a brown dwarf 350 trillion kilometers away!

I wrote about this when the observations were first announced, too. Here’s the NRAO writeup.

The second one, released this morning, is about huge black holes wandering around dwarf galaxies.

I wrote about this when it came out as well. It’s a really cool science story.

Writing these is actually a bit tougher than you might think. They want them to be a minute or so long, which means maybe 200 – 250 words, and it can be hard to condense an extremely cool science story down that far. It becomes a question of what to leave out as much as what to put in. But I do like a challenge, especially a writing one.

The NRAO blog will have them listed as they come out, and you can follow them on Twitter to get updates, too. I will of course tweet about the videos everyday as well.

Radio astronomy is an extremely broad field of science, studying objects from nearby planets in the solar system to the most distant galaxies in the Universe. Further, if you count microwaves as radio (the limits on what counts as infrared, microwave, and radio are a bit arbitrary).

There’s a lot to discover, and NRAO is on it. Follow them and you will be too.

Blog Jam

What I’ve recently written on the blog, ICYMI

[It took me a long time to make this graphic, so please click it. Plus the story, from Tuesday’s article, is way cool. Credit: NASA, ESA, A. Simon (Goddard Space Flight Center), and M. H. Wong (University of California, Berkeley) and the OPAL team and Phil Plait]

Monday 21 December, 2020: So, um, does anyone remember where we put that supermassive black hole?

Tuesday 22 December, 2020: Wait. Jupiter has *how* many moons?

Wednesday 23 December, 2020: A planet eats a disk while the disk eats a nebula. It’s eating all the way down

Thursday 24 December, 2020: The most distant astronomical object ever seen… in 1962

Friday 25 December, 2020: Memories of the Blue Snowball

A Bit o’ Science

The entirety of science is too much for one sitting. Here’s a morsel for you.

I’m not 100% sure this is science, but close enough: A group of scientists has calculated that on or about the year 2020, humans have created more material on Earth by weight than the total weight of all the living things on it.

In other words, if you care to think of it this way, the surface of the Earth is more artificial than natural when it comes to living things.

It’s an interesting calculation, based on production of things like metals, asphalt, bricks, and so on. It’s also based on “dry mass” for biological organisms, so doesn’t include their water weight. However, the scientists also show that around 2037 we’ll have produced more stuff on Earth than even the wet mass of biology.

[The amount of human-made materials versus “dry mass” of biological organisms on Earth (left) and with both dry and wet (right). Human-made material is shown as an accumulation, assuming it doesn’t go away with time, whereas biomass is constantly changing form. Credit: Elhacham et al.]

The total dry biomass on Earth is about 1.2 trillion tons (1.2 quadrillion kilograms). Anthropogenic mass, as they call human-made materials, has or will exceed this weight in 2020 ± 6 years. The wet biomass is about 2.2 trillion tons.

This achievement, such as it is, is mostly symbolic, just a sign of how we’re altering our planet. It’s not necessarily a bad thing — one can imagine doing this in balance with nature, impacting the local and global environment as little as possible — but of course that’s not the case with us. For the most part we just bully our way through nature, paving roads where we want them, mining what we need with disregard of what it does to the animals and plants (or humans) around it, and changing the courses of rivers if we want water in one place and not another, even if it’s grossly and obviously unsustainable (like, say, with Las Vegas).

On top of that, of course, we’re changing the global environment and that’s having all manners of local effects. Colorado (for an example local to me) is gripped by a drought and has been for years; many states in the West are in similar straits. Sea ice in the Arctic isn’t freezing as rapidly as it should this time of year; and as we know there’s less of it every year. I’m sure you could find some example local to you.

I could go on and on (an I have many times for many years), but I do in fact have hope. It’s not too late, and if the GOP in Senate doesn’t hamstring the incoming Biden Administration there is reason to believe we can still turn all this around.

If, that is, we keep a skeptical eye on the incoming President. I think he’s talking a good talk, and his Cabinet picks seem to indicate he’s serious about a lot of this. But the proof is in the pudding, and in this case our pudding is the planet. I await policy decisions and actions taken, and hope they bend the arc of our trajectory.

Et alia

You can email me at (though replies can take a while), and all my social media outlets are gathered together at Also, if you don’t already, please subscribe to this newsletter! And feel free to tell a friend or nine, too. Thanks!